Preserve Streets of Paradise

Letters to SRQ Daily, January 16, 2021    


I am writing to voice how crucial it is that the city of Sarasota allow local nonprofit Streets of Paradise to provide free showers and hygiene services to our city’s houseless.

In 2019, our Sarasota community spent months raising money for a completely hygienic, disability accessible shower truck with a washer/dryer for free use by our city’s houseless. It was a game changer: hygiene is a basic need for any human being but absolutely urgent in Sarasota, one of the hottest and wettest places to live in the United States. Highly contagious skin infections, such as MRSA, have become a real danger to those on our streets. SOP’s shower truck provides the only outdoor, sanitized, COVID-19-friendly, accessible, free showers within Sarasota city limits.

City opponents of SOP’s shower services say that they are “redundant” and better offered by government partners. However, the Resurrection House showers are not disability accessible and the Salvation Army showers are not free and accessible to everyone. The SA enforces a strict 10-minute shower-time limit and they are a “no touch facility.” People in wheelchairs must undress, shower, re-dress and get out of the bathroom with no help in under 10 minutes. As an SA representative told me, the showers only work for “totally self-sufficient” disabled people. SOP makes their showers and laundry facilities work for every single person they can.

On SOP’s first shower day, an elderly woman in a wheelchair got her first shower in an entire year. A few months later, despite the best efforts of SOP and many others in the community, the city had successfully banned the shower truck. Every week city officials continue this cruel ban; they are stealing health and well-being from people like this elderly woman. The City claims to represent the interests of all Sarasota residents— are the homeless not residents of Sarasota, too?

My friend, Devon Oppenheimer, who volunteers with SOP, said that prior to the pandemic someone on the streets would want a hug, but then say, “‘Oh, you shouldn’t come too close to me, I stink’… it’s absolutely heartbreaking,” she told me. “No one should have to go without love and physical touch because they feel ashamed.”

Hygiene is paramount to mental health and wellbeing. City officials have said that SOP’s services “enable people to remain homeless.” The only thing they enable people to remain is alive. In this dark time of losing loved ones by the thousands each day to suicide and COVID-19, the city of Sarasota is preventing people from services that improve their mental and physical wellbeing is unconscionable. During this crisis of eviction and unemployment, they halt services that enable people to get jobs and housing. No one will hire or rent to a person who seems like they cannot take care of themselves physically.

The Sarasota government pledged to protect its homeless citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic, and they have utterly failed. The pandemic response work the local government homeless initiative says they did in their articles was actually done entirely by SOP. In the early days of the pandemic, the governmental organizations to help the homeless shut their doors— there was no one else feeding, registering people for COVID-19 tests, or providing hygiene except SOP.

After the homeless staged protests against the Sarasota government’s inaction, they installed public downtown “hygiene stations” in April 2020. Then in September 2020, the same week they extended the state of emergency due to COVID-19, city officials had the public hygiene stations removed. The pandemic is worse now than it has ever been. The Sarasota government should be thanking SOP for doing their job for them and striving to follow their lead to help our most vulnerable citizens in this unprecedented time of hardship. Instead, they are choosing to waste everyone’s time and money on a campaign to prevent Sarasota residents from providing free hygiene to our brothers and sisters on the streets.

Willa Tinsley is a 20-year-old student at New College of Florida.